The Western Roman Empire, toward the end of the fourth century, presented a complex picture of recovery and decline, of literary activity and sterility, of political pomp and military decay. Gaul prospered, and threatened Italian leadership in every field. Of the approximately 70,000,000 souls in the Empire, 20,000,000 or more were Gauls, hardly 6,000,000 were Italians;15 the rest were mostly Greek-speaking Orientals; Rome itself since 100 A.D. had been ethnically an Oriental city. Once Rome had lived on the East, as modern Europe lived on its conquests and colonies till the middle of the twentieth century; the legions had sucked the products and precious metals of a dozen provinces into the mansions and coffers of the victors. Now conquest was ended and retreat had begun. Italy was forced to depend upon its own human and material resources; and these had been dangerously reduced by family limitation, famine, epidemics, taxation, waste, and war. Industry had never flourished in the parasitic peninsula; now that its markets were being lost in the East and Gaul, it could no longer support the urban population that had eked out doles by laboring in shops and homes. The collegia or guilds suffered from inability to sell their votes in a monarchy where voting was rare. Internal trade fell off, highway brigandage grew; and the once great roads, though still better than any before the nineteenth century, were crumbling into disrepair.
The middle classes had been the mainstay of municipal life in Italy; now they too were weakened by economic decline and fiscal exploitation. Every property owner was subject to rising taxes to support an expanding bureaucracy whose chief function was the collection of taxes. Satirists complained that “those who live at the expense of the public funds are more numerous than those who provide them.”16 Corruption consumed much of the taxes paid; a thousand laws sought to discourage, detect, or punish the malversation of governmental revenue or property. Many collectors overtaxed the simple, and kept the change; in recompense they might ease the tax burdens of the rich for a consideration.17 The emperors labored to secure an honest collection; Valentinian I appointed in each town a Defender of the City to protect citizens from the chicanery of the susceptores; and Honorius remitted the taxes of towns that were in financial straits. Nevertheless, if we may believe Salvian, some citizens fled across the frontier to live under barbarian kings who had not yet learned the full art of taxation; “the agents of the Treasury seemed more terrible than the enemy.”18 Under these conditions the incentives to parentage weakened, and populations fell. Thousands of arable acres were left untilled, creating an economic vacuum that conspired with the surviving wealth of the cities to draw in the land-hungry barbarians. Many peasant proprietors, unable to pay their taxes or to defend their homes against invasion or robbery, turned their holdings over to richer or stronger landlords, and became their coloni or cultivators; they bound themselves to give the lord a proportion of their produce, labor, and time in return for guaranteed subsistence, and protection in peace and war. Thus Italy, which would never know full feudalism, was among the first nations to prepare its foundations. A like process was taking form in Egypt, Africa, and Gaul.
Slavery was slowly declining. In a developed civilization nothing can equal the free man’s varying wage, salary, or profit as an economic stimulus. Slave labor had paid only when slaves were abundant and cheap. Their cost had risen since the legions had ceased to bring home the human fruits of victory; escape was easy for the slaves now that government was weak; besides, slaves had to be cared for when they ailed or aged. As the cost of slaves mounted, the owner protected his investment in them by more considerate treatment; but the master still had, within limits, the power of life and death over his chattels,19 could use the law to recapture fugitive slaves, and could have his sexual will with such of them, male or female, as pleased his ambidextrous fancy. Paulinus of Pella complimented himself on the chastity of his youth, when “I restrained my desires … never accepted the love of a free woman … and contented myself with that of female slaves in my household.”20
The majority of the rich now lived in their country villas, shunning the turmoil and rabble of the towns. Nevertheless, most of Italy’s wealth was still drawn to Rome. The great city was no longer a capital, and seldom saw an emperor, but it remained the social and intellectual focus of the West. And here was the summit of the new Italian aristocracy—not as of old an hereditary caste, but periodically recruited by the emperors on the basis of landed wealth. Though the Senate had lost some of its prestige and much of its power, the senators lived in splendor and display. They filled with competence important administrative posts, and provided public games out of their private funds. Their homes were congested with servants and expensive furniture; one carpet cost $400,000.21The letters of Symmachus and Sidonius, the poetry of Claudian, reveal the fairer side of that lordly life, the social and cultural activity, the loyal service of the state, the genial friendliness, the fidelity of mates, the tenderness of parental love.
A priest of Marseille, in the fifth century, painted a less attractive picture of conditions in Italy and Gaul. Salvian’s book On the Government of God (c. 450) addressed itself to the same problem that generated Augustine’s City of God and Orosius’ History Against the Pagans—how could the evils of the barbarian invasions be reconciled with a divine and beneficent Providence? These sufferings, Salvian answered, were a just punishment for the economic exploitation, political corruption, and moral debauchery of the Roman world. No such ruthless oppression of poor by rich, he assures us, could be found among the barbarians; the barbarian heart is softer than the Roman’s; and if the poor could find vehicles they would migrate en masse to live under barbarian rule.22Rich and poor, pagan and Christian within the Empire, says our moralist, are alike sunk in a slough of immorality rarely known in history; adultery and drunkenness are fashionable vices, virtue and temperance are the butts of a thousand jokes, the name of Christ has become a profane expletive among those who call Him God.23 Contrast with all this, says our second Tacitus, the health and vigor and bravery of the Germans, the simple piety of their Christianity, their lenient treatment of conquered Romans, their mutual loyalty, premarital continence, and marital fidelity. The Vandal chieftain Gaiseric, on capturing Christian Carthage, was shocked to find a brothel at almost every corner; he closed these dens, and gave the prostitutes a choice between marriage and banishment. The Roman world is degenerating physically, has lost all moral valor, and leaves its defense to mercenary foreigners. How should such cowards deserve to survive? The Roman Empire, Salvian concludes, “is either dead, or drawing its last breath,” even at the height of its luxury and games. Moritur et ridet—it laughs and dies.24
It is a terrible picture, obviously exaggerated; eloquence is seldom accurate. Doubtless then, as now, virtue modestly hid its head, and yielded the front page to vice, misfortune, politics, and crime. Augustine paints almost as dark a picture for a like moralizing end; he complains that the churches are often emptied by the competition of dancing girls displaying in the theaters their disencumbered charms.25 The public games still saw the slaughter of convicts and captives to make a holiday. We surmise the lavish cruelty of such spectacles when Symmachus writes that he spent $900,000 on one celebration, and that the twenty-nine Saxon gladiators who were scheduled to fight in the arena cheated him by strangling one another in compact suicide before the games began.26 In fourth-century Rome there were 175 holidays in the year; ten with gladiatorial contests; sixty-four with circus performances; the rest with shows in the theaters.27 The barbarians took advantage of this passion for vicarious battle by attacking Carthage, Antioch, and Trier while the people were absorbed at the amphitheater or the circus.28 In the year 404 a gladiatorial program celebrated at Rome the dubious victory of Stilicho at Pollentia. Blood had begun to flow when an Oriental monk, Telemachus, leaped from the stands into the arena and demanded that the combats cease. The infuriated spectators stoned him to death; but the Emperor Honorius, moved by the scene, issued an edict abolishing gladiatorial games.* Circus races continued till 549, when they were ended by the exhaustion of the city’s wealth in the Gothic wars.
Culturally, Rome had not seen so busy an age since Pliny and Tacitus. Music was the rage; Ammianus29 complains that it had displaced philosophy, and had “turned the libraries into tombs”; he describes gigantic hydraulic organs, and lyres as large as chariots. Schools were numerous; everyone, says Symmachus, had an opportunity to develop his capacities.30 The “universities” of professors paid by the state taught grammar, rhetoric, literature, and philosophy to students drawn from all the Western provinces, while the encompassing barbarians patiently studied the arts of war. Every civilization is a fruit from the sturdy tree of barbarism, and falls at the greatest distance from the trunk.
Into this city of a million souls, about the year 365, came a Syrian Greek of noble birth and handsome figure, Ammianus Marcellinus of Antioch. He had been a soldier on the staff of Ursicinus in Mesopotamia as an active participant in the wars of Constantius, Julian, and Jovian; he had lived before he wrote. When peace came in the East he retired to Rome, and undertook to complete Livy and Tacitus by writing the history of the Empire from Nerva to Valens. He wrote a difficult and involved Latin, like a German writingFrench; he had read too much Tacitus, and had too long spoken Greek. He was a frank pagan, an admirer of Julian, a scorner of the luxury that he ascribed to the bishops of Rome; but for all that he was generally impartial, praised many aspects of Christianity, and condemned Julian’s restriction of academic freedom as a fault “to be overwhelmed with eternal silence.”31 He was as well educated as a soldier can find time to be. He believed in demons and theurgy, and quoted in favor of divination its archopponent Cicero.32 But he was, by and large, a blunt and honest man, just to all factions and men; “no wordy deceit adorns my tale, but untrammeled faithfulness to facts.”33 He hated oppression, extravagance, and display, and spoke his mind about them wherever found. He was the last of the classic historians; after him, in the Latin world, there were only chroniclers.
In that same Rome whose manners seemed to Ammianus snobbish and corrupt, Macrobius found a society of men who graced their wealth with courtesy, culture, and philanthropy. He was primarily a scholar, loving books and a quiet life; in 399, however, we find him serving as vicarius, or imperial legate, in Spain. His Commentary on Cicero’s Dream of Scipio became a popular vehicle of Neoplatonist mysticism and philosophy. His chef-d’oeuvre, quoted by almost every historian these last 1500 years, was theSaturnalia, or Feast of Saturn, a “Curiosities of Literature” in which the author gathered the heterogeneous harvest of his studious days and bookish nights. He improved upon Aulus Gellius while poaching upon him, by putting his material into the form of an imaginary dialogue among real men—Praetextatus, Symmachus, Flavian, Servius, and others—gathered to celebrate the three-day feast of the Saturnalia with good wine, good food, and learned conversation. Disarius, a physician, is asked some medical questions: Is a simple better than a varied diet?—Why do women rarely, and old men so regularly, get drunk?—“Is the nature of women colder or hotter than that of men?” There is a discourse on the calendar, a long analysis of Virgil’s vocabulary, grammar, style, philosophy, and plagiarisms; a collection of bons mots from all ages; a treatise on rich banquets and rare foods. In the evenings lighter questions amuse these pundits. Why do we blush with shame and pale with fear?—Why does baldness begin at the top of the head?—Which came first, the chicken or the egg? (Ovumne prius fuerit an gallina?)34 Here and there in the medley are some noble passages, as when the senator Praetextatus speaks of slavery:
I shall value men not by their status but by their manners and their morals; these come from our character, that from chance. … You must seek for your friends, Evangelus, not only in the Forum or the Senate, but in your own house. Treat your slave with gentleness and goodness, admit him to your conversation, occasionally even into your intimate council. Our ancestors, removing pride from the master and shame from the slave, called the former pater familias, the latter familiaris (i.e., one of the family). Your slaves will respect you more readily than they will fear you.35
It was some such circle as this that, about 394, welcomed into its number a poet destined to sing the swan song of Rome’s magnificence. Claudius Claudianus, like Ammianus, was born in the East, and spoke Greek as a mother tongue; but he must have learned Latin at an early age to write it so fluently well. After a short stay in Rome he went to Milan, found a place on Stilicho’s staff, became unofficial poet laureate to the Emperor Honorius, and married a lady of birth and wealth; Claudian had an eye to the main chance, and did not propose to be buried in Potter’s Field. He served Stilicho with melodious panegyrics and with savagely vituperative poems against Stilicho’s rivals. In 400 he returned to Rome, and was gratefully acclaimed when, in a poem “On the Consulate of Stilicho,” he wrote for the Eternal City a eulogy worthy of Virgil himself:
Consul all but peer of the gods, protector of a city greater than any that on earth the air encompasses, whose amplitude no eye can measure, whose beauty no imagination can picture, whose praise no voice can sound, who raises a golden head under the neighboring stars, and with her seven hills imitates the seven regions of heaven; mother of arms and of law, who extends her sway over all the earth, and was the earliest cradle of justice: this is the city which, sprung from humble beginnings, has stretched to either pole, and from one small place extended its power so as to be coterminous with the light of the sun. … ’Tis she alone who has received the conquered into her bosom, and like a mother, not an empress, protected the human race with a common name, summoning those whom she has defeated to share her citizenship, and drawing together distant races with bonds of affection. To her rule of peace we owe it that the world is our home, that we can live where we please, and that to visit Thule and explore its once dreaded wilds is but a sport; thanks to her, all and sundry may drink the waters of the Rhone and quaff Orontes’ stream. Thanks to her we are all one people.36
The grateful Senate raised a statue to Claudian in Trajan’s Forum “as to the most glorious of poets,” who had united Virgil’s felicity with Homer’s power. After further verses in honor of remunerative subjects, Claudian turned his talents to The Rape of Proserpine, and told the old tale with haunting pictures of land and sea, and a tender note that recalls the Greek love romances of the time. In 408 he learned that Stilicho had been assassinated, and that many of the general’s friends were being arrested and executed. We do not know the remainder of his story.
In Rome, as in Athens and Alexandria, substantial pagan minorities survived, and 700 pagan temples were still standing at the end of the fourth century.37 Jovian and Valentinian I do not seem to have closed the temples opened by Julian. The Roman priests still (394) met in their sacred colleges, the Lupercalia were celebrated with their old half-savage rites, and the Via Sacra now and then resounded with the prescient bellowing of oxen driven to sacrifice.
The most highly respected of Rome’s latter-day pagans was Vettius Praetextatus, leader of the pagan majority in the Senate. All men admitted his virtues—integrity, learning, patriotism, fine family life; some compared him to old Cato and Cincinnatus. Time remembers better his friend Symmachus (345–410), whose letters paint so pleasant a picture of that charming aristocracy which thought itself immortal on the eve of death. Even his family seemed immortal: his grandfather had been consul in 330, his father prefect in 364; he himself was prefect in 384, and consul in 391. His son was a praetor, his grandson would be consul in 446, his great-grandson would be consul in 485, his great-great-grandsons would both be consuls in 522. His wealth was immense; he had three villas near Rome, seven others in Latium, five on the Bay of Naples, others elsewhere in Italy, so that “he could travel up and down the peninsula and be everywhere at home.”38 No one is recorded as having grudged him this wealth, for he spent it generously, and redeemed it with a life of study, public service, blameless morals, and a thousand acts of inconspicuous philanthropy. Christians as well as pagans, barbarians as well as Romans, were among his faithful friends. Perhaps he was a pagan before he was a patriot; he suspected that the culture that he represented and enjoyed was bound up with the old religion, and he feared that the one could not fall without the other. Through fidelity to the ancient rites the citizen would feel himself a link in a chain of marvelous continuity from Romulus to Valentinian, and would learn to love a city and a civilization so bravely built through a thousand years. Not without reason his fellow citizens chose Quintus Aurelius Symmachus as their representative in their last dramatic struggle for their gods.
In 380 the Emperor Gratian, won to a passionate orthodoxy by the eloquent Ambrose, proclaimed the Nicene Creed as compulsory “on all the peoples subject to the governments of our clemency,” and denounced as “mad and insane” the followers of other faiths.39 In 382 he ordered an end to payments by the imperial or municipal treasuries for pagan ceremonies, vestal virgins, or priests; confiscated all lands belonging to temples and priestly colleges; and bade his agents remove from the Senate House in Rome that statue of the goddess Victory which Augustus had placed there in 29 B.C., and before which twelve generations of senators had taken their vows of allegiance to the emperor. A delegation headed by Symmachus was appointed by the Senate to acquaint Gratian with the case for Victoria; Gratian refused to receive them, and ordered Symmachus banished from Rome (382). In 383 Gratian was killed, and the hopeful Senate sent a deputation to his suecessor. The speech of Symmachus before Valentinian II was acclaimed as a masterpiece of eloquent pleading. It was not expedient, he argued, to end so abruptly religious practices that had through a millennium been associated with the stability of social order and the prestige of the state. After all, “What does it matter by what road each man seeks the truth? By no one road can men come to the understanding of so great a mystery” (uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum).40
The young Valentinian was moved; Ambrose tells us that even the Christians in the imperial council advised the restoration of the statue of Victory. But Ambrose, who had been absent on a diplomatic mission for the state, overruled the council with an imperious letter to the Emperor. He took up one by one the arguments of Symmachus, and countered them with characteristic force. In effect he threatened to excommunicate the ruler if the plea should be granted. “You may enter the churches, but you will find no priest there to receive you, or you will find them there to forbid you entrance.”41 Valentinian denied the Senate’s appeal.
The pagans of Italy made a last effort in 393, risking all on revolution. The half-pagan Emperor Eugenius, refused recognition by Theodosius, and hoping to enlist the pagans of the West in his defense, restored the statue of Victory, and boasted that after defeating Theodosius he would stable his horses in Christian basilicas. Nicomachus Flavianus, son-in-law of Symmachus, led an army to support Eugenius, shared in the defeat, and killed himself. Theodosius marched into Rome, and compelled the Senate to decree the abolition of paganism in all its forms (394). When Alaric sacked Rome the pagans saw in the humiliation of the once lordly city the anger of their neglected gods. The war of the faiths broke the unity and morale of the people, and when the torrent of invasion reached them they could only meet it with mutual curses and divided prayers.